The Common Good

Justice Stevens Hasn't Moved, the Supreme Court Has

There's an old story about a man and his wife driving into town one evening. The wife looks over at her husband behind the steering wheel and says: "You know, when we were young, we used to snuggle up close to each other while we were driving. Now we sit so far apart." He looked back at her and replied: "I ain't moved."

Some of Justice John Paul Steven's remarks on his retirement remind me of that story. Appointed to the federal appeals court by Richard Nixon and the Supreme Court by Gerald Ford, he was seen as a moderate Republican centrist. But as Stevens is retiring nearly 35 years later, he is called the "leader of the court's liberal wing." In interviews, he attributed this apparent switch to the Court having changed, not him. He's right. Stevens replaced William O. Douglas, one of the Court's leading progressives, in an era that also included Thurgood Marshall and William Brennan. And, as Stevens points out, almost all of his former colleagues have been replaced by someone more conservative.

It's an example of how far to the right American politics has moved in those 35 years. What was then liberal now barely exists; what is now called "liberal" would have then been considered moderate, and what is now "conservative" would have been on the far right. And it goes a long way in explaining how the Court has gone from being the last resort for those left out to the guardian of corporate interests.

Two quotes from Stevens' dissenting opinions have been in many news stories this weekend, and will not doubt serve as a large part of his legacy. In his dissent to the Court's decision in Bush v. Gore in December 2000 to end the vote recount in Florida and essentially award the presidency to George W. Bush, he wrote:

"Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year's presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear. It is the nation's confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law.''

And just a few months ago, in January, he wrote of the Court's decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission to allow unlimited corporate spending in elections:

"While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics."

Duane Shank is the senior policy advisor for Sojourners. Read all of today's top news in Sojourners' Daily Digest.

Sojourners relies on the support of readers like you to sustain our message and ministry.

Related Stories

Resources

Like what you're reading? Get Sojourners E-Mail updates!

Sojourners Comment Community Covenant

I will express myself with civility, courtesy, and respect for every member of the Sojourners online community, especially toward those with whom I disagree, even if I feel disrespected by them. (Romans 12:17-21)

I will express my disagreements with other community members' ideas without insulting, mocking, or slandering them personally. (Matthew 5:22)

I will not exaggerate others' beliefs nor make unfounded prejudicial assumptions based on labels, categories, or stereotypes. I will always extend the benefit of the doubt. (Ephesians 4:29)

I will hold others accountable by clicking "report" on comments that violate these principles, based not on what ideas are expressed but on how they're expressed. (2 Thessalonians 3:13-15)

I understand that comments reported as abusive are reviewed by Sojourners staff and are subject to removal. Repeat offenders will be blocked from making further comments. (Proverbs 18:7)